Words That Heal

There is a long tradition, both East and West, about sacred words. We don’t resort to that kind of thing very much in modern life.  If you are a devout Catholic you repeat the rosary, and in many sorts of Buddhist and Hindu meditations a mantra is repeated over and over. There are two reasons for this, usually. One is that the repeated words go directly to God, as prayers do. The other is that repetition fills the mind with a deeper intention that can create a good effect.

I wonder if it isn’t time to consider how words can help to heal.  I’ve been fascinated for a long time about how to update traditional spiritual practices, and this one is especially promising.

What can a mere word do to heal?

In ordinary life words can be incredibly powerful, creating instantaneous, often dramatic change in mind and body. Think of the difference between hearing the word “You’re hired” and “You’re fired.”  How many lives have been changed by “I love you”? Yet we actually know very little about how to consciously employ the effect that a single word can have.

Let me make some suggestions for you to ponder:

Withhold harsh words: Being honest doesn’t mean being brutal. In the name of telling the truth, we’ve all heard — and said — things we’re sorry were ever uttered. It’s worth remembering that every cell in your body is eavesdropping on the brain, and when you feel hurt or shocked by what you hear, the same shock is occurring to hundreds of billions of cells.

I became a doctor just on the cusp of a big change in this regard. It used to be that physicians hardly ever told fatally ill patients that they were dying, often withholding even the diagnosis. (When the last emperor of Japan died, he was not told his diagnosis — the old practice still holds in other cultures.) It was thought that receiving bad news could hasten a person’s death and impair his chances of recovery. This effect is known as nocebo, the reverse of placebo. In essence, your body metabolized bad news and becomes sicker, or it metabolizes good news and starts to heal.

Today, we believe it is only ethical to give patients full disclosure about their illness, and on the whole that is the right thing to do. But it doesn’t erase the nocebo effect.  Leaving medicine aside, consider withholding harsh, harmful truths in daily life. There is no reason to discourage a child, for example, by saying hurtful things.

It’s well known in psychology that descriptive statements (such as “you’re lazy, you can’t be trusted, you’ll never be as smart as your sister,” etc.) make a much deeper impression than prescriptive statements (such as “pick up your room, remember to come home on time, be nice to your sister” etc.) Sometimes a single derogatory sentence from a parent or close friend can remain stuck in the brain for  life, serving as a toxic seed that grows into a belief that one will never be good enough, smart enough, or beautiful enough. It’s much harder to remove these seeds than not to plant them in the first place.

Words that heal: Besides holding back on harsh and derogatory words, saying words that heal really works.  Offering reassurance in an anxious situation settles people.  Reminding someone that they are loved, respected, and valued should be a habit. Such words serve to bond two people together at a deep level if the words are backed up with simple, sincere, believable emotion — not over-stated emotion but natural feeling.  We tend to be shy about exposing ourselves emotionally, but only if you try can you gain the benefit.

Then there are words we say only to ourselves, silent words of healing. In the East there are thousands of such formulas, many gathered under the loose term of mantra, that are repeated in order to infuse the mind with their good effect. You can’t get much effect from repeating a word like love, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness when your mind is agitated or filled with the flotsam of everyday life. But if you deepen your awareness through meditation, which brings one’s attention to a level of silence beneath the surface static, then healing words can have quite a strong effect.

It is taught that healing words, when said at a subtle level of the mind, can do several things. They can purify the mind of negative thoughts by introducing a more positive effect (such as replacing “It’s my fault” with “Blame won’t help anybody”). A healing word can bring comfort; it can add a positive element to your surroundings. It can improve your mood and the overall tone of your demeanor, which others will notice and take heed of.

I’m suggesting that healing words need to play a more important role in our lives. This is a vast territory worth exploring. As a society, we’ve become experts at words that definitely don’t heal: gossip, cynicism, skepticism, accusation, partisan wrangling, smear campaigns, and character assassination.  As a result, we know all about the bad effects of such words. Why not consider the positive effect of saying words that work in the opposite way?

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle